By Stacey Dresner
LONGMEADOW – As the new assistant executive director of the Springfield Jewish Community Center, Rabbi James Greene hopes to be the JCC’s Jewish voice.
“I think that my job is really to help bring meaningful Jewish content and Jewish engagement to a wide variety of programming areas,” he said. “I am interested in exploring how the Jewish Community Center is a unique and meaningful Jewish home in partnership with synagogues, Federation, Jewish family services, and our day schools. I believe strongly in the mission of the JCC.”
Rabbi Greene’s first day at the JCC was Dec. 14. Before arriving here with his wife Jen and two daughters, Talyah, 7, and Kol, 5, he worked as program director at the Addison-Penzak Jewish Community Center in Los Gatos, Calif., located in the Silicon Valley.
“Throughout the search process James stood out for his youthful exuberance, warmth and diversity of experience,” said Michael Paysnick, executive director of the Springfield JCC. “He can just as readily work with staff to infuse Jewish content in programming as he can assist with budget and planning. We are excited to capitalize on James’ outreach experience in engaging the Jewish and broader community through the building of partnerships with area institutions and agencies.”
Rabbi Greene was raised in a military family.
“My father was in the Air Force, so I grew up all over the country and spent some time living in Germany as well while my dad worked for NATO, but I call Nebraska home. It’s where my mother’s family has been for the last 100 years or so.”
His father Mandy led Jewish services often during his 21 years in the military.
“One of my early Jewish memories is driving all of the Jews to Ramstein Air Base. My dad was the highest ranking Jewish military officer in Germany so he was assigned to lead services.”
Once back in the U.S. the rabbi’s father became a synagogue administrator. His mother, Marcia, was a Jewish educator before retiring and becoming a “full-time bubbe.”
He attended a conservatory of music as a saxophonist in Kansas City. But that changed when he studied abroad in Israel in 2001-2002.
“It was at the height of intifada and I made the decision that I really wanted to do work that was inspired by my connection to the Jewish community,” he recalls. “I made the decision when I came back to transfer schools. I went to Florida Atlantic University and got a degree in Jewish studies.”
He attended the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC) and was ordained in 2008.
After working in Los Gatos for several years, he and his wife decided they wanted to move to New England – his partner’s family lives in Sharon.
“Western Massachusetts is beautiful and has a lot of open land and space. We really wanted that for our children and for us,” said Greene, who is a backpacker and has certification as a Jewish wilderness guide.
Last month, Rabbi Greene travelled to the Dominican Republic as part of American Jewish World Service’s Global Justice Fellowship for Rabbis.
The six-month fellowship, which began in October, is “designed to educate and train key opinion leaders in the American Jewish community to become advocates in support of U.S. policies that will help to improve the lives of people in the developing world and the global south, and to help us mobilize our own communities to take action to address the issues that we are learning about,” he said.
They learned about two issues in the Dominican Republic: stateless Dominican residents of Haitian descent and the LGBT community.
“The journey I had in the Dominican Republic was really about collaborating on the ground with community activist groups who are doing really sacred work to help address what I think are incredible human rights issues in their local communities,” he said.
He learned that there are about 200,000 Dominicans of Haitian descent, whose parents or grandparents immigrated to the Dominican Republic, mostly from Haiti as workers.
“Their children and grandchildren were born in the Dominican Republic, have never been to Haiti and yet they are denied citizenship in their home country,” he said. “I think of the Jewish narrative that we have had over the course of our history where our people have experienced this kind of statelessness and what feels like a form of enslavement. When I look and share space with these people who are experiencing such incredible oppression I see our history.”